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A pivot irrigator spraying water over farmland
Credit or caption

A pivot irrigator. Credit: David Brooks


Innovate not Irrigate

Conservation area:

Irrigation and intensive farming has transformed rural New Zealand in recent decades, and our environment is paying the price. But innovative farmers are farming within environmental limits, and showing it can be more profitable.

Why it matters

Our countryside has been transformed in the last few decades, as colourful and diverse drylands turn into the monotonous green pastures.

Cattle in creek

Agriculture is a major driver of New Zealand's freshwater crisis. Credit: Aaron Anderson

This transformation has only been made possible by irrigation.

Between 1994 and 2015, there was a nearly 70 percent increase in dairy cows nationally. As dairy cow numbers have increased so has the need for water. Reliable water leads to more intensive farming, and so the pattern goes.

Dams and large-scale irrigation schemes wreak havoc on the natural environment.

  • More water means more cows and fertiliser, which leads to more pollution in our rivers
  • Our rivers, lakes and aquifers are struggling as unprecedented amounts of water are taken for irrigation
  • Ecologically rich dryland areas such as the Mackenzie Basin are disappearing as irrigation destroys habitat and pushes native species closer to extinction

We need to rethink our farming practices. The only way to ‘future proof’ our farms from a changing climate is to farm within environmental limits.

Irrigation infographic

New Zealand irrigates 800,000 hectares nationwide and 47% of irrigation is for dairy farming. Credit: Statistics New Zealand

Innovative farmers are leading the way. Reducing cow numbers, fertiliser inputs, and dependence on irrigation has been shown to be more profitable than intensive farming.

What is Forest & Bird doing?

  • In early 2018, we were successful in lobbying the incoming government to end irrigation subsidies
  • Now, we are watching other Crown funding streams, and council funds, to ensure public money is not spent on environmentally damaging schemes
  • We advocate for more funding to be made available to help farmers transition to sustainable farming methods

Nature needs your support

Supporting Forest & Bird is one of the best things you can do for New Zealand's environment. We need people like you to support us, so that nature will always have a voice.